Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor op.16 [29:27]
Franz LISZT (1911-1886)
Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major S124 [19:19]
Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes S123 [15:30]
Jean-Baptiste LULLY (1632-1687)
Gavotte en rondeau in D minor [2:21]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in D major K96 ‘La Chasse’ [2:30]
Georges Cziffra (piano)
Orchestre National de l’ORTF/Georges Tzipine (Grieg), Andre Cluytens (Liszt)
rec. Paris, France, 17 April 1959 (Grieg), Paris, France, 12 March,1959 (Liszt), Luxembourg, 20 January 1959 (Lully, Scarlatti). Mono. ADD.
ICA CLASSICS ICAC5079 [69:42]
They say that what goes around comes around. That’s how I feel about the Grieg piano concerto when played by Cziffra. It was one of the very first LPs I ever bought for myself at age 18 with its distinctive cover of beautifully photographed autumn leaves and a recording with the Philharmonia Orchestra under André Vandernoot (HMV ALP 1678). I cherished the record with its coupling of Liszt’s piano concerto no.2 until one day very foolishly I had my portable record player sitting on my bed (why!?) and then absentmindedly threw a hot water bottle onto it making the stylus jump and skitter across the disc completely ruining it. I never found another copy until 53 years later, earlier this year in fact, when I found the self-same LP in my local Oxfam charity shop paying three times what I bought it for in 1959 and was bowled over by my luck.
Now I have the good fortune to be able to review another recording of Cziffra playing the Grieg recorded live in 1959 with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF under Georges Tzipine, along with Liszt’s 1st piano concerto under Cluytens. Above all it confirms my impression forged all those years ago of Cziffra as a mighty powerhouse of a pianist whose expressive playing did the greatest service to a composer any artist can give. Reading the notes however, I find that amongst the controversy that Cziffra always engendered is the suggestion that Cziffra could be said to have stood Ashkenazy’s dictum (‘I like to think that we are now more music’s servants than her masters’) on its head. That surely cannot be said of his recordings of Liszt, however; Marcel Dupré called Cziffra a reincarnation of Liszt. How can any pianist overdo the playing of Liszt when Liszt could equally well have been described as Cziffra was by London critics as combining ‘the precision of a metronome with the electrical discharge of a thunderstorm’?
Acclaimed in the west after his dramatic escape from Hungary in 1956 as ‘greater than Horowitz’ Cziffra took the world by storm with performances that were breathtaking in their sheer power to impress. Audiences were, as the notes so eloquently put it, taken ‘by the throat and sent ... reeling into the night mesmerised by his aplomb’. As the notes further point out Cziffra was such a contrast in an age when pianists were often indistinguishable from one another. So here was a pianist whose performances invited controversy and divided his listeners into two camps, lovers and haters.
The first thing that struck me about this CD was the clarity of sound considering the age of the recording. It’s hats off to Peter Reynolds for a brilliant job of re-mastering the tapes for their first ever release on CD. As I believe is often the case with those performances one hears for the first time, Cziffra’s interpretation of the Grieg became my aural benchmark against which, knowingly or not, all others have been judged down the years. In such cases, and with me there are several, I find myself saying to myself when listening to other recordings of this or that work “too fast” or “too slow”. This means that as far as I’m concerned I’ve never heard anyone play the Grieg piano concerto better. In Cziffra’s electrifying performance every single note is telling making for the most complete account I can ever imagine hearing. Reading this you might think that Cziffra found it more difficult to be tender when required, only really being able to portray the tumultuous sounds, but that thought is dispelled as soon as the second movement gets under way. Following a brilliant opening movement in which the main theme is fairly hammered to the musical mast, the Adagio is caressed and set as a wonderfully crafted contrast to the two outer movements. The final movement is eventually seized and driven on to its scintillating conclusion, though not before the first half of it is quietly restrained with the notes gently coaxed into being, setting up the last five minutes to be driven almost manically along to a conclusion that releases the audience’s eruption of applause. The performance may well divide listeners but it is certainly not one you are likely to feel ambivalent about. That will surely be the case with anything Cziffra touched. His Liszt is renowned for its fantastic shows of pianistic energy. However, the first movement of Liszt’s 1st concerto is as gently portrayed as anyone could want. The opening of the second movement is also beautifully light and dreamy though the darker levels are hinted at along the way leading from Quasi adagio into Allegretto vivace - Allegro animato and the kind of playing that elicited the statement from Dupré that Cziffra was Liszt’s reincarnation. The concerto is brought to a characteristically brilliant conclusion that leaves one breathless in awe and admiration. This is again underlined by the storm of applause from the audience. I watched a short video of Cziffra playing Liszt’s Grand gallop chromatique. There the full extent of his amazing abilities are plain to see as his hands each appear to have more than five fingers as they rush across the keys. His fingers seem to have been extremely long.
The two concertos are followed by another great demonstration of Lisztian showmanship: the Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes S123. It is often said that this or that soloist has a particular music in their blood; that cannot be truer than in this case since Cziffra’s heritage was from the Roma community. His father was a player of that most emblematic instrument of the Hungarian gypsy, the cimbalom. His account of this rich and exciting work is extremely authentic as you would expect with Cziffra’s fingers dancing up and down the keyboard as the piano mimics the cimbalom most convincingly. You can hear this particularly around 13 minutes in as the piece rushes towards its stunning climax which gives way once more to the audience’s enthusiastic reaction.
Apparently Cziffra loved the miniatures that he reserved for his encores. The disc concludes with two delightful pieces, a beautifully restrained account of Lully’s Gavotte en rondeau in D minor and Scarlatti’s Sonata in D major K96 ‘La Chasse’. These leave you wanting more which is the perfect way for any artist to finish a concert.
As I stated at the beginning Cziffra divides opinion between his admirers of which I am one and those who feel his playing was mannered and far too idiosyncratic. There are unlikely to be many who cannot make up their minds either way. In a century the first half of which saw many unique pianists the like of whom we shall surely not see again, certainly in such numbers, Cziffra is right up there with the greatest. He was the man who was characterised by one American critic as ‘a caveman with earrings’ and will remain a controversial figure whose recorded legacy is a treasure trove for those who have yet to discover him. I cannot praise this disc too highly and if you do not know Cziffra you are indeed lucky to have this chance to hear him at the very peak of his powers.
I’ve never heard anyone play the Grieg piano concerto better. Cziffra at the very peak of his powers.
Masterwork Index: Grieg piano concerto